Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Social Network 1910

I've read quite a few articles lately, trashing Facebook. This IPO fiasco has given leave for some people to trash the product, not merely the IPO offering.  Conrad Black on the Huffington Post? How Funny!

I am writing a book (made of up three digital ebooks) about women in 1910. The books are based on family letters. If there is any one thing that hits you in the face when you read these letters, it's how important social networks were back then.

Yes, I know they are still important now, especially in a bad economy where "who you know" is more important than "what you know." (Well, that's always been the case, but more than ever when jobs are few and far between.)

But also let's face it, we live privatized existences today. (Blame in on consumerism. I do. The more privatized the social unit, the more costly it is and the more money it puts into commerce.) Our social networks, like our extended families, are seriously diminished compared to 100 years ago.

Privatization means that husbands and wives spend a lot of time in each other's company and also rely on each other for emotional and physical and financial support. (This was not the case early in the century. Women and men moved in separate spheres.)

Dinner and a movie is the usual activity for couples because it's the cheapest thing to do - and it's not that cheap anymore. (I love that line by Jim Carrey from my FAVORITE movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: "We've joined the ranks of the dining dead." )

We are still social animals, sure, but chances are when we go out, more than not, we sit or stand among a crowd of strangers - and interact only with the people we are with. We like the feeling of being in a crowd. We just don't trust anyone enough to speak to them.

We likely don't even know our neighbours to talk to. And with 24 hour groceries, we can't use the excuse of needing to borrow a cup of sugar.

The Nicholsons lived in Richmond, Quebec, a town of 2, 500. Their friends were a small proportion of the town, the leading citizens (English ones) and Presbyterians. The women in their circle still had 'their day at home' like in the Victorian era. That's when the local hens got together and gossiped about everyone else or 'raked the town over' as Edith liked to put it.

The Nicholsons had a large family too, but friends trumped family for some reason. They feuded with family a lot.

Without friends or family in those days, you couldn't leave the house to be entertained. You couldn't go on vacations.

Even when Norman was stoney broke, he paid his Masonic fees, which were considerable. He just had to be 'in the club'. All the other leading businessmen were. (It cost him 50.00 for the Masonic Regalia in 1888, a huge amount of money.)

And were in not for family friends in Montreal, the Clevelands and McCoys (originally from Richmond) Marion Nicholson would not have been able to take a good paying job in the city, teaching at Royal Arthur, and she would not have been able to help her family out financially and they would have most certainly lost their house in Richmond - and, then, who knows.

Biology and Ambition is about Marion's early schooling and career. Threshold Girl is about Flora Nicholson's year at Macdonald Teaching College in 1911/12. Both ebooks show how important friends are connections were in 1910, before radio, television and Internet. They were your social safety net!

Marion ended up having a very hard life, but she always had lots of friends. Edith relied more on family for support, although she too hobnobbed with elegant people, in her job at the Registrar's office at McGill and as Assistant Matron at Royal Victoria College (McGill's Women's Dorms.)

Immigrants too understood the importance of connections.  There was a reason immigrant groups gathered together in the city, even though the Powers That Be in Canada actually expected them to go live in the rural areas. I read a story about Ellis Island, and how some Southerners came up to encourage arriving Italians to move to the Deep South. They couldn't persuade them to. The Italians wanted to go to New York or Montreal, where their  countrymen were! They were not idiots, even if they could not speak English. They knew what they needed to survive in a cold judgmental world..

Here's a bit from the August 1911 Delineator. Rules for the Hostess and Guest. Some things change and some things stay the same.

In Canada, they are making cuts to the government's social safety net. That scares me because, for many modern citizens knowing only the modern privatized way of things, there is nothing being offered to to replace it. Will a person's Facebook friends help him out in times of need? I wonder. Will relations step up to the plate?  I doubt it, somehow.

Are we all suddenly to go back to the Old Ways of 100 years ago? How to do that?